Sunday, June 18, 2017

"The lost photos of Barcelona"

[Image: Milagros Caturla, courtesy of Tom Sponheim]

































  An envelope in a Barcelona flea market held the work of an unknown master photographer...

"In the summer of 2001, American Tom Sponheim was vacationing in Barcelona with his wife. On their way to the cathedral of Sagrada Familia, they wandered through the bustling flea market of Els Encants.

Sponheim spotted a stack of photo negatives on a table, and after checking that they were decently exposed, asked the vendor how much. She asked for $2.50 for an envelope of the shots. He paid her $3.50.

Upon returning home, Sponheim scanned the negatives and discovered that he had stumbled upon the work of an unknown but immensely talented photographer."

Read more from source and see more of the remarkable photos here.

(Article first found via Business Over Tapas.)





Saturday, June 10, 2017

"The quiet one" -- My latest article for Catalonia Today magazine

[Photo: Lluís Serrat.]
 There he is. Sitting along the side of the class, with his head down. He could be a child or an adult -- and certainly female too -- but today at least this introvert has very little to say for himself.   

Familiar to most of us who spend any time in group situations at work or in a social setting, the introvert is not shy by definition. 

According to North American author (and self-acknowledged introvert) Susan Cain, shyness is actually about fear of being judged by others.

In fact, she argues, it’s just that “introverts feel at their most alive and their most switched-on and their most capable when they're in quieter, more low-key environments.” Extroverts -- their opposites -- are people who simply function better with a high level of social stimulation.

The wider point that Cain makes in her book on the subject is she believes that a bias has crept into “our most important institutions, our schools and our workplaces. They are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts' need for lots of stimulation. And also we have this belief system right now that I call the new groupthink, which holds that all creativity and all productivity comes from a very oddly gregarious place.”

Myself, as someone who does not fit neatly into either category of the out-going chatterbox or the silent internal type (but rather seem to flit between the two depending on the moment) I confess to having largely failed in my attempts to run a fully inclusive classroom. 

When I was a secondary teacher I tried to democratically involve all of my students in being vocal but (like many educators) I was unaware of how best to do this or that some teenagers just do not want to speak if it can be avoided.

Teaching adults over the last few years I’ve learned that the prevailing culture in this part of the world too is clearly in favour of extroverts. I have even taught in companies where they believe that they do not have any introverts working alongside them as their colleagues. 

In the endless rounds of group meetings and chatty open plan offices introverts often fade into the background. It is as if being introverted is a mark of shame and sets someone apart as “not a team player.”  

But there is no good reason for this to be the case. 

As Susan Cain discovered, “when it comes to leadership, introverts are routinely [ignored] for leadership positions, even though introverts tend to be very careful...and when psychologists look at the lives of the most creative people, what they find are people who are very good at exchanging ideas and advancing ideas, but who also have a serious streak of introversion in them.” 

She gives the examples of Charles Darwin, Steve Jobs and genius children’s author Dr Seuss.

Of course, extroverts can and do lead us the wrong way though. 

Cain notes that “groups famously follow the opinions of the most dominant or charismatic person in the room, even though there's zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”

For some reason, the name Donald Trump immediately comes to mind.


[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, June 2017.]


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Video: Spanish man wins at European Stone Stacking Championships 2017

Pedro Duran from Arcos de la Frontera in Cadiz, Spain has been awarded first prize for 'Most stones balanced' at the first annual European Stone Stacking Championships 2017 in Scotland.

On one day of skill, patience and artistry "the competition brought together a community of stackers from across Europe and featured some inspiring and breathtaking balances."

Sunday, May 28, 2017

"Most EU states drifted backward on gay rights"

(Photo: Miguel Discart)
 "Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland still show the least respect of all EU countries toward sexual minorities, with activists calling for political “courage” and “backbone” by EU institutions. 

The three member states all scored below 20 percent on a map of human rights compliance in Europe published by Ilga-Europe, a pressure group in Brussels.

The NGO ranks countries on the basis of laws and policies that impact LGBTI people’s rights in six areas, including equality and non-discrimination, family, and hate speech and violence.

At the other end of the scale, Malta (88%), the UK (76%), and Belgium (72%) led the way, with France (71%) not far behind. 

The map, as in previous years, showed more red (non-compliant) or shades of red and orange in the east, compared to green (compliant) in the west. 

The rating did not always correlate with religious mores - Italy, a Roman Catholic country, scored just 27 percent, but Ireland, Portugal, Spain, which are also Catholic, scored between 52 percent and 69 percent.

Even though Italy scored low, it improved by 7 percent from 2016. 

Denmark, Finland, France, and Slovenia also improved slightly, but the group-of- five were the only ones to do so, while most counties eroded slightly and a few others stayed the same.


Meanwhile, the worst places in Europe to be gay were Azerbaijan (5%) and Russia (6%), where gay people have been rounded up, jailed, abused, and, on some occasions murdered in Russia’s Chechnya province despite EU outcries. 

Ilga-Europe said legal gender recognition in France, civil unions in Italy, and a ban on conversion therapy in Malta “made global headlines” last year, but it said LGBTI people in other parts of Europe were “literally living in fear of their lives”. 

It said marriage equality was “not the only marker of improvement” and the new frontier in Europe is the rights of trans and intersex people"

Read more from source at EU Observer here.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

"Democracy and other duds" -- My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

[Photo: JUANMA RAMOS.]
At a time when the European Union appears to be slowly falling apart, its highest court was fixated on whether a woman at one workplace in Belgium should be allowed to wear material covering her head.

As a staunch non-believer in religion, I find the continuing European fascination with burkas, hijabs and the like very, very odd. 
Yes, when I was 16 in Australia and deeply afraid of the unknown (in the form of Malaysian and Indonesian Muslim students at my school) it was challenging to my childish attitudes but I associate that kind of fear with cultural ignorance. 
I don't see why this style of dress should force someone out of their job, as it did in the case of Samira Achbita.

In essence, the European Court of Justice supported the right of a private company to have an "internal policy or rule" on staff clothing. If this means the wearing of a uniform, I see no problem. 
But to outlaw other items is to trample on human rights. Ironically, this is the very thing that modern and secular society is supposedly better than because fundamental Islam tries to impose restrictions on women's dress. Moderate, progressive Islam does not.

Logic now dictates that if a Muslim-run company based in Europe told its female workers to wear a cloth head covering then they would have to if the company decided it was part of their uniform and not an individual choice. 
As Human Rights organisation Amnesty International stated after the court's recent decision, "by ruling that company policies can prohibit religious symbols on the grounds of neutrality, they have opened a back door to precisely such prejudice."

Manfred Weber, head of the center-right European People's Party, the largest in the European Parliament, said that he believed it was: "[an] important ruling by the European Court of Justice: employers have the right to ban the Islamic veil at work. European values must apply in public life."

If we substitute the words “European values” for “German values” we have the same flavour of statement that was repeated continually in the 1930’s about another religious minority. “Jews have to accept that German values must apply.”

In this way, by establishing the idea that a Muslim cannot be a true European, it is already going part way to also establishing the idea that a Muslim is a lesser human. 
This makes the association of a Muslim as a terrorist much easier to create in the mind of the average person. (It is then only a small step to restrict their travel, as Trump is currently in the process of doing.) 
We are led to believe that the European court decision is a first strike for great European democracy, a brave attack on the terrible dangers of those frightening women who wear a bit more more than others do.

So, what we call democracy has now taken away the liberty of a small number of females without a single good reason. 
Recently, different arms of our imperfect democracies, have also thrown up a far-reaching referendum result in the UK that only 25 percent of the population voted for. In the USA, a demagogue President strutted into office despite his opponent getting almost 3 million votes more than he did.

In other news, it has come to light that in that same 'land of the free' (the USA) almost 1 in 5 adults are are in fact free from the burden of being able to read. 
Hurray for democracy!
[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, May 2017.]

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Video: I talk and listen about this week's national and international stories











This week I was a guest again on Matthew Tree's English language discussion program on El Punt Avui TV. 

We covered topics including Trump's latest actions, the current Spanish government's insistance on preserving Europe's largest fascist monument and their threats of legal action against any company making ballot boxes for the Catalan government.

For a video of the show click here.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Video: "Meet Spain’s Only All-Female Cricket Team...[in Barcelona]"


Via the excellent Business Over Tapas, I came across the above short video that tells how "when Aïna Coscollola began working with a group of teenage girls from Pakistan who had recently moved to [Besos in] Barcelona, she came up with a unique approach to tackling the self-confidence and language challenges that many of these young immigrants faced. 

She started an all-women’s cricket team. Cricket, the most popular sport in Pakistan, proved a unifying force for this community, helping the girls unearth a sense of identity, cooperation, and a newfound sense of self-esteem at school."

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Spain (and Australia) in top ten countries for corporate tax dodging

 "What would you do with $500 billion? 

The first challenge might be actually getting your head around quite how much money that is. If you like to travel in style you could buy 1,150 Airbus A380s, according to the published Airbus list price. 

If you just wanted to show off, you could cover a football field to a depth of 1.5 metres with cash. 

So, it’s a lot of money. It’s also the amount of revenue the world is losing as a result of tax avoidance, according to a new report from the United Nations World Institute for Development Economics Research (pdf).

Corporate tax is a vital source of government revenue across the globe. It is especially vital in developing countries, argue the report’s authors. Their findings highlight the extent of global tax avoidance - as well as the countries facing the biggest shortfalls.

The issue was also on the agenda at this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos. The session ‘Taxation without Borders: A Fair Share from Multinationals’ looked at the action needed - particularly in the wake of the leak of the Panama Papers, which exposed the use of tax havens around the world."

Read more from source here.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

"The words we use" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

Good. Bad. These are two words that have come back into public language recently. 

Unfortunately, they are words which express the extremes of a moral spectrum and have been returned to politics via the snarling mouth of US liar-in-chief Donald Trump.

I have tended to think that using a word like 'good' is a clear one and therefore better than saying something is 'appropriate'. 

We can easily discuss why X, Y or Z is good or bad (and just as importantly, who something is good or bad for) but it is much more difficult to say why something is appropriate. 

That is why it has been a popular word with pre-Trump politicians looking for a sneaky way to justify the unjustifiable.

I remember first hearing the word appropriate when I started out as a secondary school teacher in the mid-1990s. 

Students would often be told that their behaviour was inappropriate and I could see that this word had no meaning for them, apart from being prohibitive. 

It would have been a lot more educational to tell them that they had done something that was disrespectful, dangerous, illogical or even thoughtless.

Of course it could be argued that all this concern with words is just for writers and teachers and is some kind of an academic exercise that has no relevance for the average person. 

After all, they are only words, right? 

I would simply reply: tell that to the Roma rights groups. Only a couple of years ago they felt compelled to protest against a decision by Spain's Royal Language Academy (RAE) to include a definition of a gypsy as a 'swindler' in their new official dictionary. 

Words inform and they can also misinform. Trump and May and Le Pen and Wilders know this all too well.

Others have noted the importance of language across society. Writing in the Spanish newspaper El Pais, Josep Ramoneda argued that "the struggle for power, anywhere, is also the struggle for the control of words. 

The one who imposes his verbal categories on the public mind wins. Example: the word austerity." 

His opinion is that "people are accepting it as something inevitable. Austerity is one of the terms of virtue. From it derives a whole chain of complementary words: sacrifice, rigor, responsibility, etc."

Ignoring all shades of grey in his black and white universe, Donald Trump tells anyone listening what is bad and what is good but he almost never uses the word ‘because’ to explain why things can be categorised so neatly. 

He asserts. He insists. If he and the others like him are to be countered, it will be for the rest of us to do the explaining. 

Through clear imagery and equally simple words.


[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, April 2017.]

Friday, April 14, 2017

"Marine Le Pen Denies French Guilt for Rounding Up Jews"

Photo: Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images
  "A casual remark about France’s wartime anti-Jewish actions by Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, threatened on Monday to derail her yearslong effort aimed at “un-demonizing” her party just as she is emerging as a strong contender in this month’s presidential election.

The remark was made on Sunday during an interview in which she referred to the most notorious roundup of Jews in France during World War II, when nearly 13,000 were arrested in Paris by the French police on July 16 and 17, 1942, in what is known as the “Vel d’Hiv roundup.”

“France wasn’t responsible for the Vel d’Hiv,” she said. “If there was responsibility, it is with those who were in power at the time, it is not with France. France has been mistreated, in people’s minds, for years.”

Ms. Le Pen’s words created a small eruption in an already heated campaign, drawing strong criticism by politicians right, left and center and by Jewish groups, who all saw it as an echo of her party’s anti-Semitic roots."


Read more from source here.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Chatting with Jim Kent on Barcelona City FM radio

This week I had an extended session chatting (between short tracks) with Jim Kent on the region's only local English language radio station.

An enjoyable time was had by all and the full podcast can be downloaded here.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

"I don't like divisions. They belong to a schizophrenia of thinking"

[Photo: JOSEP LOSADA.]

Romanian writer Mircea Cartarescu makes one of the most compelling arguments in favour of the existence of Europe in an interview with Marcela Topor, the Editor of Catalonia Today magazine...



"I've always been a fervent pro-European. My Europe is one built on an enormous cultural, philosophical and scientific heritage. 

The Judaic-Greek tradition dating back 3,000 years is its spine. 

Descartes is the archetype of the European spirit. His famous quote starts with the word “dubito”, which is the most European word possible, in my opinion. T

he spirit of doubt, which leads to rational thinking, is the best thing that Europe has. This is my ideal Europe: a place of humanism, centred around education and culture...

I don't like divisions. They belong to a schizophrenia of thinking. 
 
The Berlin Wall was the main symbol of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. I dream of a Europe without frontiers, I am also aware that we still have a long way to go until we can hope to achieve this dream. 
 
European countries are not just simple squares on a map, but they have a bloody and traumatic past. The United States of Europe seems something of a utopia right now."
 
Read more from source article at Catalonia Today here.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

"This weekend, DiEM25 lands in Rome to present its “European New Deal..."


"It’s the EU’s 60th birthday this weekend, and leaders of all EU countries will be in Rome that day to celebrate it. 

Their goal? To preserve the status quo.

We, the Democracy in Europe Movement, see things differently. We want to give the people of Europe a real alternative to the Establishment and the rising ‘nationalist international’; a progressive path to save Europe from itself.
That’s why this weekend we’ll be landing in Rome to set that alternative in motion, over three days of events and important announcements. 

And we invite you to be part of it!"

Read more at DiEM25's comprehensive site here.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Barcelona's extraordinary Supercomputing Centre


A place I was lucky enough to once do some language work in...

"One of Europe's largest supercomputers is housed inside of a disused chapel.

What was once a...place of worship known as the Torre Girona is now the home of the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, filling the expansive main hall with banks of futuristic computer equipment under glass. 

Since 2005 the former church has been home to MareNostrum, one of the most powerful supercomputers in Europe that was instrumental in developing modern microchip technology. 

The giant machine is used to perform the massively complex calculations involved in such fields of research as human genome mapping, astrophysics, and weather prediction. Physically the computer consists of a number of black computing stacks that are all encased in a giant glass box, which itself sits in the romantically-styled main hall of Torre Girona.

Rebuilt after the Spanish Civil War, the Torre Girona is a 19th century church that sits on the campus of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia. 

The space was used as a Catholic church until at least 1960, when it was deconsecrated. Since then, it has been used for more functional purposes, finally being inhabited in full by the supercomputer and its attendant offices. 

MareNostrum may not be the most powerful computer in the world any longer, but it will likely remain the most visually appealing for years to come."

Source from Atlas Obscura here.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

"The Trump Show" - My latest opinion column in Catalonia Today magazine


There is really only one news story over the last months: the start of Donald Trump's regime.

Before the end of last year I said on Matthew Tree’s TV discussion program that one of the main reasons Trump was elected was that he knows that (now more than ever) politics is an entertainment industry. 


Style has become substance. Impression has replaced reality.

I also said that Trump would have been defeated by Bernie Sanders, the other alternative candidate in the Democratic party who offered a genuine agenda of change rather than Hillary Clinton’s message of a continuing the same for another four years.

Trump found the votes he needed in the parts of the country where he needed them because he stood for a major shake-up to a system that clearly needs it and because he repeatedly promised work again to the unemployed. 

When I talk to people here in Catalonia, plenty of people use the word “confident” about Donald Trump. What seems to me as his grotesque arrogance then, is seen by others as a can-do attitude and has given a false hope. And it is also this that helped propel him into the White House.

Large numbers of the public are prepared to ignore his clear personality faults because Trump projects the persona of someone who is an action hero, a cowboy, a maverick but a ‘do-er’ as well as a big talker. And a significant chunk of the popular media has continued to be sucked into reporting his ‘colourful antics’ and ‘controversial statements’ rather than the policy decisions he has already taken in his first weeks in charge.

Even as I write this article, I have to struggle to concentrate on the detail of the executive orders he has just signed rather than talking about his inflammatory Twitter posts. It is easier to look at what he has tweeted than what he has, with a stroke of his pen, made into law. 

On a daily basis the airwaves and worldwide web are awash with his decisions but the hour-by-hour short news cycle can never dwell for too long on a single issue and Trump thrives on this fact as much as he enjoys letting it drag him into the gutter.

Recently, several journalists who covered the protests at his inauguration were charged. With exactly what offence no one's quite sure at this moment but this intimidation tactic is likely to have its desired effect. 

As well as this, the Spanish language version of the Presidential website was shut down: a clear signal to the US’ hispanic citizens that they are disposable too in the wider sweep of life. 

These are actions, not words and they are Donald Trump’s actions. Despite this, his distractions about voter fraud and the size of the crowd at his first speech as commander-in-chief have been publicised a great deal more than his decision-making, as if his social media presence was more significant than the impact of his policies on ordinary people.

It is more than apparent now that those who thought Trump would soften his attitudes and become sobre and responsible once sitting at the Oval Office desk were wrong. 

He is just getting warmed up. 

What we will witness in the next four years (or possibly even eight years) is guaranteed to be an extreme exercise of naked power as a simple extension of his ego. It will be unlike any other term of office in that corrupt superpower ‘democracy.’ 

The crucial question is how much congress is going to stand up to Trump’s will. My prediction is that the majority Republican party will typically bend to his wishes.

I was woken up at five o’clock in the morning by a dream about Trump and immediately decided to write this article. In my dream Trump was on a television talk show and left the set complaining and throwing his earpiece on the ground. 

The truth is that he no longer needs to even appear on TV. We are all doing his PR for him and I would argue that his tweets should be completely ignored by all media, in effort to starve him of easy air time.

But after all though, Donald Trump is the logical result of a society obsessed with money where worship of wealth is as deeply engrained as feeling for the stars and stripes flag.

 
[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, March 2017.]

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Is Spain a parents' paradise? - A reprinted except from my book "The Remade Parent"

Republished this week on Child in the City was the following extract of my non-fiction book, The Remade Parent...

"Different countries have different relationships with their children, something that can be especially evident to immigrants. In his new book, The Re-Made Parent: why we are losing our children and how we can get them back, the Australian, Brett Hetherington, a resident of Barcelona, wonders whether Spain may just be a ‘paradise’ for parents. We publish edited extracts here.

Some parents (including myself) believe that, compared to many other countries, Spain is generally a more physically secure place for children and adults alike. For instance… In 2000, the Parliament in Spain’s autonomous region of Navarra passed a ground breaking law allowing all registered couples in that region (including same-sex couples) to adopt children. (In the first Chapter of this book I made the point that a parent should be thought of as anyone who can provide to a child continuous care, concern and affection.)…
The pride that so many adults and children have of their town and region means that they often take an active interest in defending it and being part of its collective life. A lot less Spaniards move away from their home area than say, North Americans, which creates bonds of attachment to the people and places of they grew up with. In other words, adults and younger people “know their roots” here and have a fundamental respect for them.

 

Public, not commercial, space

Related to this point above is the fact that in Spain there are plenty of public open spaces that are not there to be commercial. The plazas are not shopping centres and the ramblas are not principally designed for trade. The parks are many and they are not “retail parks” for buying and selling. The town square is not a “mall” but is instead reserved for festivals or protests.
All these places are for idling, strolling, gathering and talking, socialising and playing. They are social by their nature and they function as spaces for community activities rather than for simply spending money. To someone like myself who grew up with the focal point of young life being a multi-storey shopping centre, I am happy to know that my son and his friends will not be spending their free time sitting around in a place where everyone is first and foremost a consumer.
Blanca, a mother of three who has also lived in several countries outside the Iberian Peninsula has a view of Spain that certainly sums up many of the benefits of residing in this country. Her words make a fitting conclusion to the case in favour of Spain being a parental paradise:
“I think children feel more free here than in many other countries. They can run and play because you can count on friends and neighbours. In England I didn’t feel this. People there just mind their own business and look the other way. We all know each other here and you spend more time together.


The Re-Made Parent: why we are losing our children and how we can get them back by Brett Hetherington is available here

Saturday, February 25, 2017

"The Spanish Exception: Unemployment, inequality and immigration, but no right-wing populist parties"

[Crowd in the center of Madrid. Photo: Manolo Gómez (CC BY 2.0)]
If we accept that the governing Partido Popular is in fact right-wing but not actually 'populist' then these findings are fascinating...

"Very few European countries have proven immune to the appeal of right-wing populism. The exception is Spain: despite economic crisis and fast-eroding political trust, Spain has not seen any right-wing populist party obtain more than 1% of the vote in national elections in recent years. 

What might explain this remarkable absence of an electorally successful Spanish right-wing populist party?

Using public data (including statistics and opinion polls), interviews with experts and original polling, this case study scrutinises various factors influencing right-wing populist success in Spain – or lack thereof. First, it sets out why it is so remarkable that Spain should not have a right-wing populist presence in politics. 

Several explanations are discussed, including the historical weakness of the Spanish national identity and the Spanish people’s pro-Europeanism. These factors all seem to influence the (lack of) demand for a populist message by Spanish people. In and of themselves, however, these factors fail fully to explain the absence of a right-wing political party. 

Finally, this case study considers so-called supply-side factors, particularly the failure of parties that have tried to appeal to right-wing populist sentiments in Spain and the effects of the Spanish electoral system.

This report takes part of the Research Project “Nothing to fear but fear Itself?”, an initiative of the British think tank Demos, which covers six countries: Germany, Poland, France, the UK, Sweden and Spain. The full report can be found on this webpage."

Saturday, February 18, 2017

"Squatting in Vilafranca" -- My latest column for Catalonia Today magazine

[Graffiti wall in Vilafranca: “Enough speculation! The Penedès is not for sale!]
 If global warming is likely to be the biggest problem facing society in the coming years, it will certainly be competing with housing as an issue of great public concern. 

While the situation is probably most severe in Barcelona, the people of a medium-sized Catalan town such as Vilafranca del Penedès are certainly not free from these pressures.

One group who have acted against what they see as a major cause of housing difficulties is a squatter's collective that supports the politics of the Esquerra Independentista [independent left] movement. Recently, they took occupation of a former industrial building in the north of Vilafranca and have re-named it “El Taller” (The Workshop).

“We have done this to protest against real estate speculation,” says their 21-year-old spokesman, who did not wish to be named or photographed. “But we also want to do productive things with this place. We are converting it into somewhere for people to meet to discuss politics, to drink coffee, and to have concerts and theatre performances. We are even creating a studio upstairs.”

According to the collective, the site they have taken over has been empty for at least four years, and is zoned to be eventually knocked down for redevelopment.

“The local people were happy when we moved in because there was a lot of rubbish lying around the building and no one was cleaning it up. But we did,” says their spokesman. “We're making something good out of a place that had no owner and we are doing it without any help from the Vilafranca town council. It was difficult to get this all happening but we will stay here.”

In a very different position to those who occupy vacant buildings are Vilafranca residents, Teresa and Jose. They have a rural property outside the town that is being lived in by a man without their permission. The couple have tried to avoid legal proceedings with the squatter for several years but have recently changed their approach of attempts at persuasion and conciliation.

“We were told we needed a judge's order to get him out of our house,” Teresa explains. “Our decision was to hire a private lawyer because using a public one takes much more time.”

“The procedure has taken two months to get to court and has cost us two thousand euros, but at the moment he's still there and he has smashed up half the house,” says Jose.

Speaking to some other people over lunch in Vilafranca, it is not difficult to find a common theme. There seems to be an acceptance that the government could not or would not do much to solve problems relating to housing. Apart from one suggestion that taxes should be reduced on houses, there is little genuine hope that improvements were possible coming from elected representatives.

“The introduction of the euro was what started our struggles,” says Silvia. “And the price of houses is the other burden. We pay more than double compared to those in southern Spain. The middle class has shrunk completely. Everything needs to be changed!”

Without knowing it, another woman also agrees with the squatters collective on the subject of profiteering in the real estate industry. She suggests that the high levels of speculation now means that for single people it is impossible to buy a house or even rent a decent apartment.
“Everyone has to live with their parents or share accommodation with at least one other person if they are to afford to have any quality of life,” she argues.

There is something here that is beyond dispute, though. Almost anyone would see the common sense in a group of energetic and optimistic young people making good use of a long-abandoned building, as with the Vilafranca squatters group. However, the question that does remain is: How should this happen, both legally and ethically?

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, February 2017.]

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Four middle-aged men talk democracy and rights in Catalonia, Spain and Syria

Click here: http://www.elpuntavui.tv/video/203328544.html
This week I was a guest once again on author/journalist Matthew Tree's roundtable TV program, Our Finest Hour.

The other panel members were lawyer and journalist Frank MacGabhann and long time resident of Catalonia, Andrew Spence.

Monday, February 6, 2017

"The role of culture in Europe's crisis" - My translation


Below is my translation of *Marcelo Expósito’s contribution to the session on "Diplomazia Culturale dell'UE", as part of the meeting: “How Can We Govern Europe?” held at the Camera Dei Deputati, Rome, November 18, 2016.

(*Marcelo Expósito is a Deputy for Barcelona from En Comú Podem and is the Third Secretary of the Congress of Deputies.)



Thanks to EUnews for inviting me to this meeting on the situation in Europe and to Silvia Costa, Chair of the Culture Committee of the European Parliament, for agreeing to share this dialogue with me on the role of culture in the European Union.

This is a strange moment to talk about culture in Europe, particularly if under the very name of "culture" we refer mainly to the cultural policies of European national and supranational institutions. And it seems to me a delicate moment for several reasons that can be synthesized into two.

The first is because a slow change of direction has been taking place in recent years in the discourse of cultural administration of Europe. The second reason has to do with the general crisis situation, whose connections with one's own uncertainty about the current role of culture are not always evident in debates like the one that now calls us.

For a long time, the jargon derived from the paradigm of cultural industries has been becoming nuanced. Fortunately, it seems difficult now to talk about the industrialization of creativity without accompanying it with reflections on how culture can contribute to social stability, the integration of the continent or the definition of a new type of European diplomacy. It even appeals to the condition of culture as a common good that citizens as a whole deserve to enjoy.
This is not a minor change, bearing in mind that policies to promote international cultural and creative industries have, over three decades, been the instrument through which an ideology has aimed at facilitating the emergence of what Richard Florida has called the "Creative Class ". This is a curious type of social "class" whose function would ultimately be to contribute their competitive cultural practices to the processes of urban regeneration. As for gentrification and real estate speculation on a large scale, in short: we can now describe it in this untidy way. When the model of cultural policies aimed at fostering creative industries took shape in the 1990s, it did so - not by chance - in the still hard years of neoliberal hegemony and the conversion of cities into brands that need to be emphasized in The Markets of Globalization. T

Theorists such as Angela McRobbie or George Yudice have analyzed in detail how the industrialization of creativity has contributed to the de-industrialization of the peripheries or the commercial devastation of urban centers and how it has thrown the sons and daughters of the middle classes into a life of precariousness labor and existential instability as they contradictorily experienced a bubble of euphoria. It is the bubble of a promise of social advancement and access to well-being through higher education, the acquisition of creative skills and the cultivation of the capacity to innovate, which has been exploded by the shockwave of austerity policies.

But this gradual paradigm change still does not seem enough to me  and this leads us to the reason why many current debates about culture are impotent. I would like to put it in the form of a simple question: what are the reasons for this smooth change of paradigm? Is it possible to promote real change in culture and cultural policies in Europe without finding out exactly why it is, because we feel obliged to consider the transition to a new scenario? When it comes to reflecting on the crisis of the paradigms hitherto dominant in European cultural policies, can we afford to ignore the fact that we are in a general crisis situation?

The critical condition of Europe nowadays overruns any debate about our future, including debates about culture. But it is not always a fact to be revealed. And yet it is not possible to enter into discussing substantive details on the role of culture in the future of Europe without addressing some political and even philosophical problems about the more general relationship between the dubious state of culture, the instability across European, the breakdown of our democratic system and the reasons for the current systemic and civilian crisis.

In an essay written in 1936, Walter Benjamin explained how the soldiers returning home from the frontiers of World War I became mute, unable to relate what they had experienced. Facing mass death and destruction produced such a collective shock that it blocked any capacity for expression. Benjamin thought that this emotional shock marked a historical turning point in our ability to relate personal experience to the construction of a sense of community, because it made it impossible for the traditional figure of the narrator to be reproduced.

There is no possibility of reporting and there can be no artistic phenomenon nor can experience can be transmitted under cultural forms if the expressive capacity of human beings is blocked. After World War II and the Concentration Experience, T.W. Adorno wondered if poetry could still be possible after Auschwitz. Adorno did not question as much, as Benjamin did, about the subjective conditions for shaping a creative expression after the Holocaust. Instead we had the political problem of whether, after this civilizing cataclysm, we could still afford the production of a European story, acting as if the industrialized manufacture of mass death had not happened. And not because this moral collapse constituted a historical exception, but quite the opposite, because the dark side of European modernity had evidently emerged.

It seems to me that these are relevant questions again today, bridging the gap. Is it possible to continue talking about cultural policies after the violence triggered by neoliberal management of the crisis against European social majorities? Can we ignore that a certain change of administrative and cultural language is provoked solely by the way in which neoliberalism has collapsed, crumbling mainly onto the backs of the towns of the South?

We can no longer hide from the fact that the cultural development policies of the past decades have been closely linked to the predominance of financial capitalism through globalization and the evolution of local economies towards a centrality of real estate speculation. We have witnessed enormous growth of museum equipment; the extensive financing of cultural enterprises that has led to the hypertrophy of "creative classes" which, in a backward effect, are now hard hit by the crisis of a model of economic development from which they were fed and, in turn, contributed to oversize.

This relationship of feedback between culture and neoliberalism responsible for a crisis that also affects culture must be highlighted if we really want to move towards a new paradigm of European cultural policies.
As I mentioned at the outset, "culture" is too broad a term, which is not always easy to clear up an understanding of. I propose that we now think above all of three components. Culture would be seen as the behaviors, attitudes, values ​​or aesthetic forms - in a broad sense - through which a society expresses itself. It would also be a tradition of practices recognized by certain institutions. That is why we can talk about the history of literature, music or art: because there are institutions that over time negotiate, with changing criteria, what a society recognizes as cultural goods.

The term "culture" could also refer to policies and rules, manifestly written guidelines or customary behaviors governing the administrative, professional or economic functioning of a specialized field. If we really consider that European cultural policies should be guided by principles such as the safeguarding of the common good and the
political integration of the continent, social sustainability and global justice, what is required is a cultural revolution that more generally contributes to reversing the violence of the crisis which has been experienced by European social majorities. Cultural policies alone cannot cope with a crisis that has been brought about by neoliberalism to which they have been for decades closely linked. This cultural revolution will only be possible if we think in an interrelated way about the three dimensions that I have described. We need, simultaneously, to promote new shared values ​​against the neoliberal culture that fragments and individualises in supposed pursuit of our own benefit. We also must recapture our creative history, taking from the petrified stories of tradition those moments that, when revived, may be more illuminating for our emancipation in the future. As well as all this, we will have to promote public cultural policies aimed not only at the improvement of specialized sectors but above all at the empowerment of citizens in a state of shock.

As is clear from the reflections of Benjamin and Adorno, which I mentioned earlier, European culture has experienced an identity crisis whenever convulsive times have emerged. Why do we have to worry about everything related to culture when the world shakes around us? This has been a question historically recurrent in Europe. And now it is again, for obvious reasons: what is the point of talking about culture when the economy, institutions and value systems disintegrate around us and people suffer? Why must we organize ourselves to deal with the disaster caused by the elites? Does culture deserve to be part of the rescue policies and emergency programs that could overcome the crisis? Can culture be a tool for social majorities to confront the crisis of political institutions?

To find a possible answer to these questions, let us turn for a moment to the figure of Friedrich Schiller writing one night by candlelight in 1793. At his residence in Jena he worries about the distant noise of the contradictions that afflict the French Revolution, while trying to concentrate on writing a letter to his patron, Prince Friedrich Christian II von Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg. In this letter he rightly asks: "Isn’t it reasonable to worry about the needs of the aesthetic world, when the affairs of the political world are also pressing?" Schiller answered himself in his Kallias-Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man - that "to solve a political problem through experience it must be taken by the aesthetic route, because it is through beauty that freedom is reached."

One of the guiding principles of the role of culture in modern European has been the idea that culture can be a field of experimentation where thinking about solutions to social complexity and shedding light on the problems of politics can be. Precisely when reality around us is agitated, there has been an imagining of modernity. The educational function of culture constitutes a central dynamic in the formation of citizenship. This ambivalent emancipatory conception is a persistent matrix, coming from the use of culture in some State policies for the affirmation of a national identity, as well as the conception of culture as an autonomous sphere from which to think about the world, safe from a distance. Equally there its opposite, when art or culture have committed themselves as practical tools in the combative construction of  class consciousness.

Many things have changed since the moment that consciousness became enlightened, and not only because we have verified



the PIGS of Southern Europe in particular - the frightening result of any exchange with the new Prince Trichet-Draghi-Merkel von Troika. But it is still necessary to address this conception rooted not only in what the function of culture is but also in where its legitimacy lies in times of crisis. The institutional use of a progressive language as the paradigm of cultural and creative industries enters into crisis and this is inspired by an enlightened imagination. It is that close relationship between culture and education that builds an emancipated citizenship which is one of the most powerful components of the European Enlightenment tradition. But given the size and the reasons for the current crisis, it can not be recovered merely as a mere resource for the formal recomposition of political institutions still sequestered by elites. Precisely because a cultural revolution has the objective of questioning elitist control of institutions it is even forced to transform the institutions themselves.

To summarize my position: I think that culture must contribute to a more democratic exit from the crisis, spreading power to the social majorities to rescue and transform the political institutions that have been kidnapped by these very elites. Allow me to end up setting out a practical example. If culture can again constitute a place from which to think critically about the state of things, cultural policies should follow models such as the extraordinary exhibition “A really useful knowledge,” held between 2014 and 2015 at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid. Their curators, the WHW Croatian women's group, conceived an articulated work plan between the museographic institution and some artistic practices that developed tentatively but in the open. The project included everything from the Abbas Kiarostami or Straub-Huillet cinema to the collaborative collective art of Iconoclasts or Chto Delat ?, through historical experiences of militant art such as Emory Douglas, the Black Panthers' Minister of Culture.

It is here, in that diversity guided by the same principle of radical pedagogy for citizen emancipation, where I find examples to follow for a profound change in the cultural policies of the administrations in a state of crisis.